Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The summer holidays Ultima IV bash-through


Much like returning to some books and films time and time again, I feel occasionally compelled to complete Ultima IV. This is not as time-consuming as it sounds, as DOSBox makes the game very fast. I also use any help available on-line, such as the dungeon maps. The last few times I've played the 256-color modded game, but now I chose the more vanilla version. I know there's the luscious Commodore 64 update, but I can't bring myself to play a slow version any more.

It's always wise to keep the party small in the beginning, but this time I tested a theory that I would be better off without recruiting anyone until absolutely necessary (i.e. the very end). This makes the solution even faster, as the combat sequences and dungeon rooms are more simple to navigate with just the one guy. The battles are generally so easy in this game a fully maxed party is not really needed even in the final Abyss dungeon.

I picked a class that can use magic and can wield the magic wands (Mage, Druid, Bard). This time I chose a Druid, although I usually go with a Mage. I upped the character XP and gold by repeatedly exploiting dungeon rooms with a good monster/treasure ratio. The first room in Dungeon Despise is a pretty good starting point for this, it's near the British Castle and you don't need to waste torches to find the room.


When I had the ship and enough gold I went to Buccaneer's Den and bought that Magic Wand plus some of those oh-so-necessary lock picks.

After I had the 8th level character with 800 HP, I simply collected all the runes, all the stones, all keys, all special items (book, bell, candle), all "bonus" items (horn, wheel, skull) and gained Avatarhood in all virtues.

Rune locations I could still remember, but I had forgotten some of the mantras, this wasn't the case last time...

For the end, the party has to have eight characters, and levelling them up is a very tedious business. The game doesn't care if the characters are dead, though. So maybe having three persons with good-ish stats would be enough for the Abyss?

When my party had two members, I tried to educate Iolo by having my main player killed, so as to have an one-member party again. However with my (dead) character at 8th level I could easily encounter Balrons and stuff so it was a bit dangerous. I was happy with Iolo at 6th level and Mariah at 5th level. Then I recruited everyone else, mixed a huge amount of useful spells and headed to the Abyss.


When approaching the Abyss Isle pirate hideout, I came across a bug, shown above. I'm not sure if it is in the original code or a DOSBox (speed) artefact, but amidst proper ship-to-ship buccaneer battles I had to fight a bunch of miniature ships! The game resolved them as "phantoms", which is OK, but they could not move in the water. This means the south-easternmost ship could not be killed as it is out of reach for the players. However, I was lucky to have a couple of Tremor spells which destroyed the phantom shiplet.


And yes, the party was good enough to get through the eight levels of the Stygian Abyss, with on-line help to guide me of course. A couple of dudes died, but this only served to make the combat a bit more bearable. My party began starving inside the dungeon, but that's not a big deal as it's mostly combat rooms anyway.

Then I thought, perhaps the Abyss could be beat with just one character. I reloaded the game, killed off the party except my main character and entered the volcano of Abyss again. I kept my guy in good health and M.P, and also poisoned to avoid the enemy sleep spells. Quickness spells come in handy in certain situations, as having a bunch of Daemons around you can still be dangerous. But yes, it's silly how much easier and faster it is with just one character!

The Poison status preventing Sleep status can be considered a bit of a bug, but it's also a clever counter-move in an otherwise simplistic game engine. Why would there be the poison fountains in the Abyss, if not to offer a chance to gain immunity to the Sleep spells? There are versions that "fix" this feature, and I can understand the Abyss becomes reasonably difficult if this feature is removed, and the one-character approach probably would no longer work.

Friday, 16 June 2017

WiderScreen: Text Art

A frame from our VIC-20 reconstruction of an early Finnish computer comic strip, made originally by Riitta Uusitalo and Reima Mäkinen in 1983.
I recently co-edited an issue of WiderScreen journal with Markku Reunanen. As the topic is Text Art, this well fits to the theme of "old machinery" too. This new issue features typewriter poetry, teletext-art, ASCII pr0n, PETSCII and numerous other explorations at the intersection of text, technology and image.

What I am pleased about is the number of galleries and creative works that nicely complement the written articles. Somewhat sadly for international audiences, some of the articles are only in Finnish.

The link:

http://widerscreen.fi/numerot/2017-1-2/



Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Amiga Workbench icons on Linux desktop

It started with setting my Linux Mint/Mate desktop background to what supposedly was the original Workbench blue background color (#0050A0)...

Fast forward a year or so. Then I got around to thinking whether there is an Amiga Topaz truetype font, and of course there is. I also grabbed some Workbench icon graphics for the folders and such.


However, the normally scaled Topaz 8x8 font did not give the kind of 640 x 256 feel I was after. The 8x8 font is not inauthentic as such, of course the font would look like that in a high resolution desk.

But I kept looking and I found one version that had the Topaz font stretched to 8x16 proportions.

I found the icons from various sources on the net. Google image search yielded surprisingly few images of the old WB. I have so far combined elements from 1.2 and 1.3, as the latter has some more interesting icons but overall I prefer the 1.2 approach with the flat drawers and clean trashcan.

I could have taken a hard drive icon too, but it looked a bit ugly so I stuck with the disks.

Yes, to me every later WB looks worse. Got to appreciate those bold color choices in the 1980s interfaces...

I grabbed the icons using GIMP, and gave them a transparent background. The blue color is also transparency, so the desktop background would affect the icon colors as it would in the original Amiga.

Here's a snippet of my Linux Mint/Mate desktop:


I've been a bit "creative" about where to use whatever kind of icon. Obviously CLI takes me to the terminal and Notepad to the default text editor, but the telephone icon was originally for "Serial". Here it has been appropriated for the Internet browser.

With the legendary "Say" icon, I hesitated to assign it to the Screenreader, even though it would be appropriate. But as it is not something I would ever use, I assigned it to Skype. It would have made more sense to use the Telephone icon for Skype, but then what would I used the Say icon for?

It's a bit sad the icons have to be manually resized, for example copy-pasting a folder does not replicate the size. Apparently it's not easy (read:there's no tickbox for it in the prefs) to get rid of the font shadow on the desktop, so I left it as it is.

I only let this craziness take over the desktop. Changing the folder interiors, menu bars, terminal fonts, the pointer and the windows overall might be possible, but it could hamper the overall experience a bit too much.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

ATARI Portfolio



Atari Portfolio is from a time when Atari was beginning an expansion towards new fields (transputer computers, CD-ROM drives, STacy, 32-bit consoles and other near-vapourware), innovating with this portable "MS-DOS compatible" hand-held computer. Luggables had been seen before, laptops were nearing acceptable sizes and Sinclair's Z88 packed some nice functionality. But here was something, that for a brief period of time, seemed like the future.

The physical design is neat, a bit confused around the hinge when it's open and a bit thick when closed, but very cool styling altogether, a bit cyberpunk even. A slightly smaller footprint than I expected, a bit thicker than I expected, a bit smaller screen than I expected. Atari compares the size to a VHS-tape (a size comparison that's bound to become extinct) and that's a pretty adequate description.


The hinge gave a fright-inducing squeak when opening and the lid refused to close fully. Perhaps I broke the guard switch, or it was broken to begin with. On the positive side the hinge has not become loose at all over the years.

Silliest thing is the area around the screen which has no other purpose than to declare "16 bit personal computer", "Portfolio" and ATARI at various places. I can imagine that in concept stage the screen might have filled a bit more of the lid space.


Initial impressions

The keyboard is good for the size. The keyboard is buried, the keys are profiled to slant forward and they have that characteristic 45-degree sci-fi cut in them. These features altogether improve the typing sensitivity a bit, further enhanced by the subtle electric beeper sound. No fast typing, though, I was using maybe six fingers tops. I needed to change the keyboard layout to Swedish, this from the Applications/Set up/Keyboard.

Editing, well, the EDIT.BAT, to run the APP /e command
The apps are quite well thought out. The Address book does not make too many assumptions and the editor is low-key enough to be relatively quick. The Diary I suppose is more of a calendar, but I did not look into it too much. The calculator I found to be clear but a bit limited, no hex mode or even SIN/COS as far as I could learn from the manual.

The spreadsheet can calculate more complex things, and I suppose the calculator is more of an afterthought for simple immediate calculations. No hex though in the spreadsheet and sadly no string manipulation either.

I was a bit horrified with the DOS-style frame window space waster in these apps. Thankfully this can be switched on/off with F5.

Eight-bit pixel calculator in worksheet, without screen frames.

DIPping into DOS

The Portfolio boots up to a stripped-down MS-DOS called DIP DOS, with a plethora of familiar commands such as DIR, CD, COPY, PATH, PROMPT etc. HELP brings a shortlist of generic commands. Batch files such as AUTOEXEC.BAT are valid too. Thankfully the OS is in ROM.

The display shows eight text lines, and the active part of the display is even slightly smaller than the physical dimensions which are small to begin with. Old MS-DOS programs should in principle work with the Portfolio, but I doubt there are many that accommodate with the 40 x 8 character display and the limited 128K memory. Part of that memory is a RAM disk, too.

Form factor: sci-fi
It's possible to use a virtual 80x25 mode, and then scroll around that space, using the viewport as a window into that larger screenspace. The internal apps don't respond to this, but maybe it's wiser that way. In my understanding the screen is strictly text-mode, so no plotting of graphs or sprite graphics.

Given this is an MS-DOS environment, some omissions are a bit frustrating. I can't use EDIT to run the internal text editor, for example. There's a clunky APP /e construct, and although I can create an EDIT.BAT that runs the command, APP does not take a filename as an argument. At least the applications remember the last open file.

A whole Spectrum's worth of memory! The battery sled is a bit tight.
It's a pity the RAM cards need their own battery. It's also suggested the battery be changed every six months. The battery type is CR2016 type and should be only replaced when the card is inside a powered-up Portfolio, in case you're interested in retaining your data. I didn't try my 128K card yet as I don't have the battery. When the 4 AA batteries inside the Portfolio die, I guess it's goodbye to the internal RAMdisk files if they are not backed up.


I beam myself into the future

Strangely enough, for the 2010s, in some ways the Atari Portfolio from 1989 is a worse deal than the Canon X-07 handheld from 1983 I once wrote about. This has perhaps more to do with computing trends than actual hardware specs. The Canon had an integrated BASIC language and graphics commands, enhancing it's role as a calculator zillion-fold, whereas the PowerBASIC for Atari was sold separately. Given the esoteric nature of Portfolio's memory cards and connectors I have less chances of getting anything transferred to the Portfolio than with the Canon tape/serial interface.

BTW: Photographing the screen is annoying.
Obviously the MS-DOS connection gives Portfolio great generic potential, but this potential is difficult to put to use with an out-of-the-box device. There's no DEBUG, no file editor, of course no assembler. It's possible to hack up an executable file by ECHOing character codes directly to a file, though. A tiny program is created for slightly more handy file writing, then that file writer is in turn used for creating an even more complex program. This sounds intriguing and I'll be looking at this approach some time.

Although the Portfolio manages to cram in some nice software, this set is also very "office" oriented, showing that computing had begun to atrophy into imagined "tasks", paving way to boring PDAs. Later, high-end calculators like TI Voyage 200 better filled the niche that a Portfolio-type device might have been aiming at. (Note to self: write something about the Voyage)

Just like with all ye olde hardware, there are small existing communities, either for all things Atari or for the Portfolio itself. What I see there is no massive Portfolio cult, though, and modern additions are quite sparse. There apparently have been PCMCIA adapters for slightly more recent memory cards, and Wikipedia mentions a Compact Flash mod. If I've understood correctly neither work as a PC file transfer method as the cards will become Portfolio-specific. An SD-card adapter would be neat but I think there's none and might not be happening.



I thought I would refrain from mentioning it, as it's always brought up to the point it seems to be the only reference for this computer... But, of course Atari Portfolio is the device the young John Connor uses to hack an ATM in Terminator 2: The Judgment Day. There's some vague basis in reality for this, as the Portfolio can generate telephone dialtones from the Address book, something that might theoretically have found use in a phreaker's toolbox decades ago. However, the film clearly shows a ribbon connector.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Multipaint Metal Edition

Notice: The Multipaint site should be now ok.

***

It's time I gave this 8-bit paint program (works on PC, Linux, Mac) a public update.


Largest change is the new color model, which is perhaps now a bit more sensible. If there is no "room" for a new color inside a color resolution area (say 8x8 pixels), the color under the pointer will be changed to the current color.

The old mode, which prevented color changes if there was no "room" inside color area, is still retained as the 'b' mode, as it can be useful when painting fast or using the geometry tools. (it's the huge B icon at the bottom of the tool box)

Demoing the new preset dither patterns and adjustable offset:


Multipaint supported custom dithers ("rasters") before, but having these presets might come in handy. The offset can only be changed by using the bracket [ ] keys, for horizontal and vertical.

Using a loose dither and changing the offset as you go along can produce nice results quickly, as in the image above.

However I believe that almost all mechanical approaches to dithering are bound to be more or less exploratory tools, and the real work is nearly always about making pixel-level decisions.

The keysheet, highlighting the key shortcuts I think could be most useful to learn first:

u/U for undo/redo
g for grid on/off, G for grid size switch
c for grid constraint on/off.
j for spare page (alternative page for holding brushes, fragments etc.)
m for magnify=zoom
, for pick color (also middle mouse button)
ctrl for force color (change underlying 8x8 area)



A couple of tips I forgot to mention in the manual:

-This type of drawing can benefit from having a slow mouse setting. Personally, I can't draw with very fast mouse.
-I often use VICE for previewing C64 images every now and then, because it's able to predict the color blurring of a monitor. This is also why I'm not too keen to add a preview window, because it wouldn't do it's job properly. However, it may arrive one day.
-If you draw a circle with a loose dither, then grab it as a brush and draw with the dither off, you can get a kind of "airbrush".

In the future

There still remains many items and known issues on my to-do list. Preview window, aspect ratio (That MSX!), better CPC output, more flexible UI, etc., but they'll have to wait for some time yet.

Overall changes for this version:

-Changed the color behavior to a more straightforward model. Old behavior retained as ‘b’ mode.
-Overall color behavior is more uniform between formats, multicolor and otherwise
-Changes to mouse event handling should make the program a bit more useable across platforms and computer speeds
-Added preset dither (raster) patterns and offset adjustment
-A bit more visible grid (not in plus4 and CPC modes)
-Metal User Interface. Why? I wanted some program changes to be visual. Tiny adjustments to icon graphics and visual behavior. Visible dither on icon, visible spare page on icon.
-Bug fix: UI elements overlapped in CPC mode when using ZOOM=3
-Bug fix: Machine selection through prefs.txt did not really work
-Bug fix: In CPC mode palette changes could not be undoed (in loading pngs for example)

The website:

http://multipaint.kameli.net/

Monday, 15 May 2017

Raising the Dead 2: The Overclockening

Nah, this is not really about hardcore overclocking, just continuing with this PC upgrade project from 2015. I never believed there would be a processor upgrade, but here it is: Intel Core 2 Q9550 Quad core (2.83GHz)

Although it is not much of an upgrade. The tricky thing is that although this is a Quad, the previous processor, Intel Core 2 Duo E8400, is faster in a single thread, so it's a trade-off between some tasks faster with the new processor and some faster with the old. Video encoding with Handbrake is certainly faster with the quad core, reducing a 28-minute encoding nearer to 20.

But, mildly overclocking the Q9550 it does not even have to be much of a trade-off.

I nowadays have two brands of memory on the motherboard: The G.Skill (2X2GB) and Corsair (2X1GB) totaling to 6GB. They ought to play together, and for the RAM parameters I found someone with the Corsair: http://forum.corsair.com/Forums/showthread.php?t=66842.

I suppose I could trust the SPD parameters, too. The 1GB memory gap had to fixed from the BIOS settings, otherwise the total memory visible to the system remains at 5GB. (Edit: Wow, I keep on writing about MegaBytes. Fixed)

BIOS parameter experimentation may result in a non-booting computer. Then I have to use the ASUS P5B Deluxe board's CLRTC jumper to reset the BIOS entirely. Take off all power from the computer, including the hard switch. Then the jumper is changed from 1-2 position to 2-3 position for a period of 10-15 seconds. After this, the jumper is returned to the original position. Boot again and Bob's your uncle, the BIOS has been reset. (The BIOS settings menu is accessed with the DEL key)

ASUS P5B Deluxe board: The CLRTC jumper in the normal position.
I changed the FSB from 333 to 350 then to 360. I also reduced the chip voltage to a lower setting (1.2V) so the stressed cores keep around 65C (max 71.4C from the specs). Taking the voltage  above 1.2 very quickly changed the situation to 74+, at which point I closed the burnP6 running in four terminal tabs. With the voltage in the default auto-setting the result was 80 degrees Celsius when strained.

I generally use roughly the same video encoding task (~20min task duration) for Handbrake to test the stability. The burnP6 software can show how much heat the cores can generate under stress, but it does not seem to reveal all stability problems. With FSB at 370 the system became unstable, for example the Handbrake video encoding task would not be finished.

Increasing voltage in turn tended to bring back the heating problem at least with this fan configuration so I could not test the stability with great confidence. So far I have never been able to get the fan to change RPM, Windows or Linux. Pwmconfig does recognize if the Q-fan control from BIOS is on or off, so there is some connection, but it does nothing to the fans during the tests.

So I'm keeping the clocking modest for a moment.

Q9550 at Intel's website

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Icon driven

When Apple Macintosh made a splash on the computer scene with it's mouse/icon desktop interface in 1984, the occasion had a curious side effect. Software on humble 8-bit computers such as ZX Spectrum and C64 started to feature icons too. Not only utility programs but games were suddenly adorned with an interpretation of the WIMP (Windows, Icons, Mouse, Pointer) approach.

Of course, graphical interface elements had been hanging around for a while in different forms, but the Xerox Parc/Apple approach was the one that became, er, iconic.

It was exciting to have a peep into an icon-driven windowed environment on your cheapo Speccy or C64, as a Mac would be a very expensive ride. It makes me think that early 1980s home computer games were not only entertainment but demonstrative showcases of computer tech you could not otherwise have.

Here I've tried to include some of the more important, curious or representative icon-controlled games from this early period. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish the boundary between "icon-driven" games and point-and-click adventures, and I've only tried to include the most interesting borderline cases.


Alien

Arguably, Alien might not have been that much influenced by the Mac phenomenon. It is more reminiscent of earlier graphic CAD workstation displays, with a schematic plan main screen and text-based menus at the side. You don't have a floating cursor but menu items are highlighted. So, in effect the game can be played with two keys.


You are in control of multiple characters, and actions are afforded depending on whether there are exits or objects present. This is pretty much a semi-real time adventure game with rooms, items and locations. On occasions you may be presented with a graphic depiction of the Alien or Jones the cat scuttling across the screen. These incidents can be pretty startling, despite the primitive graphics.

As the scenario plays in real-time, icons serve better than text-based commands. It would be rather unfair to punish the player for slow typing speeds... Also, the relevant commands need not be remembered as they are displayed on screen.


Shadowfire

On the heels of Alien, Shadowfire was one of the earliest successful icon-driven 8-bit games, where the graphical environment was used as a selling point. Here, as in many games, the icons largely replace text adventure-style commands, for example using a combination of "pick up" and afterwards the icon for the object to be picked up.


The icon screens work pretty smoothly, but the arrangement is where the age shows. You need to click "computer" screens to get to the movement, battle and inventory screens and these computer icons are only differentiated with color. Some icons are a bit puzzling initially, with added detail where a simpler graphic might have served better.

In hindsight it would seem obvious that a half-formed action could be cancelled by clicking the already clicked icon, but instead you have to go and select the "back" icon.

Even though the icon system is very slick, moving and managing six characters around a large map becomes a daunting task, constantly switching between screens and character selection. It's mind-numbing, and I start to wish there was at least a short-cut key to each character.


Enigma Force

This sequel to Shadowfire used the same icon system, but the main game plays in a real-time arcade adventure type screen. The complexity of Shadowfire is reduced, with only 4 main characters with 4-direction movement. The icon layout now scrolls when the cursor is pushed left or right, giving a more streamlined set of actions than in Shadowfire.


The characters can be given pre-programmed motion instructions, should you know before-hand how the map lays out, that is. There's also a "mind control" icon that allows direct control of a character via joystick.

The icons themselves don't look that much clearer, and in addition to the "back" icon there is also an "oops" icon to remove actions from the queue.


Aliens

Aliens from Electric Dreams took game elements from Alien/Shadowfire/Enigma Force, transforming the influences into an intense semi-first person action adventure.


Not an icon controlled game, though, which is just as well. The lineage and a game screen layout that is suggestive of multi-window environment makes the game worth including here. Perhaps it started to dawn on the designers that certain things were better done with keyboard.


Fourth Protocol

A Frederik Forsyth tie-in, the game is visually very reminiscent of the Apple Mac environment, but in motion it is a quite simplistic interpretation. The pointer does not move freely but is switched between icons, much like in Alien, opening up iterations for your decision tree.


The game is in reality quite text-heavy and at points you have to type in names and numbers. As the game opens you find yourself reading files and memos, assigning watchers to potential cases and getting reports out of them. Later on you go on a physical-world adventure which is extremely minimal in its descriptions. (i.e. "Victoria, Tube Station, Ticket Office")


Mission Omega

A very complete implementation of a windowed environment with drop down menus, the game could even be played with a mouse. The Commodore 64 version is especially nice-looking, but it's also imitating the Mac interface very heavily. The section where you build your droids is impressive.


After this section, I have to say the game content is rather minimal. You move around in a boring maze, giving orders to each of the robots.


Star Trek: The Rebel Universe

Admittedly, this is a 16-bit game, but it also appeared on the Commodore 64.


This is a complete icon-controlled game, without any drop-down menus or much text for that matter. One interesting idea is that multiple roles of the Enterprise crew are shown as mini-screens around the main screen, again a bit like something you might have seen in a CAD program.



Something similar was on the drawing board of the Electric Dreams' Aliens game. Sadly the Star Trek screens don't update in any real time, but that might have been the goal at one time.

There's something left of this idea in how further option screens come available as character screens are opened. Bringing these out (solar system, engineering, star chart) re-customizes the surrounding screens, but arguably these are just big icons.


Stifflip & co.

A very bog-standard example of an icon-driven adventure game, showing some elements of a nascent "point'n'click" adventure: the characters are shown on-screen. The humorous and big graphics makes Stifflip a bit more memorable. The aesthetic has more to do with comic strips and silent movies than with Apple Mac.


Much like with Fourth Protocol, it's more of a graphic multiple-choice game with windowed sub-selections, and you'll be picking actions from text-based menus a lot.


Icon Jon

An obscure Amstrad CPC game that plays a bit like the Magic Knight games but the icons are more visually defined (and Apple style).


The game is controlled using a set of icons but also has computers, computer architecture and programming as the topic of the game. Bit like in TRON, the game depicts life inside computer circuitry. You can pick up and manipulate items and 'chat' with the cast of characters.


The title and game idea goes to show how intense the whole icon phenomenon was at the time.


Zoids

Four command icons placed around the main radar screen. As activities take place, new windows "pop up" around the screen with live sequences and further information. The windows "multitask" to some extent, so not all action stops just because you choose an icon.


You control a smoothly moving cursor, much like in Shadowfire. On occasion the Commodore 64 goes full on with the window overload, as every action seems to bring up multitudes of windows for iterating your action. The ZX Spectrum version is less impressive.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

BASIC 2000 / LAMBDA 8300


It's been a while since I have had my mitts on a properly old new hardware. What's it called? It's BASIC 2000 to me, but it's originally a Lambda 8300 from Hong Kong, known by many aliases in different countries. Furthermore, it's supposedly pretty much a ZX81 clone apart from the ROM, with 2K of RAM as standard as opposed to 1K.

Not completely unknown in Finland, I saw this once in a cheapo store, and maybe a picture in one of those tiny shifty-looking mail order catalogs.


Obviously the rubber keys are a bit of an improvement over the membrane keyboard. Looking behind, there's an external bus, Atari-style 9-pin joystick port, ear/mic for tape storage, RF and a "monitor" connector, which is composite video.

Already the key graphics reveal some differences to ZX81 in the character set. There are 45-degree angle blocks, 2x2 pseudo-pixel blocks for a 64x48 resolution, and funnily enough, a "ghost", "space invader", "alien butterfly" and a "car" symbol. I think there are some Sharp computers that went the same route. Seeing as there are only 64 characters + inversions in the set, it's a bold move. The 45-degree blocks are a good idea but the checkerboard "grey" patterns have been discarded.


I opened the computer to get a superficial look at the board before booting up. (The seller made no big promises) Remove three screws and pull out the case top starting from the front. The clips from the sides have to be freed first, then the top part of the case is pulled towards the front to free the case from the back clips.

The layout reminded me a bit of Laser 200/Salora Fellow, but thankfully the circuit board is better quality, I'd say better than the ZX81. This time I didn't pry inside the keyboard part.


Booting up the computer (plug-in, no power switch) with a video monitor gave a beep and a "ready" prompt. Hooray! Yet the screen quality was poor with vertical stripes and I wondered if there was something wrong with the machine. However, comparing to screenshots available on the net this seems to be quite common. Turning brightness down and contrast up pretty much made the effect disappear.

The keyboard? The first hilarious moment made me think something's again broken in there: Pressing each key gave a different pitched warbling beeps out of the loudspeaker. Typing a bit further I realized each key has a distinct tone, meaning this is an intentional feature and not a fault in the hardware. The ZX81 is silent so this is another "improvement" over that hardware, proudly audible as soon as you press the keys.


Messing with BASIC

How do the keys feel? Better than the ZX81 but maybe not as good as the ZX Spectrum. At least the keys work quite well after 35 years. Some functions might be in better positions than in the ZX81, such as the (shifted) cursor and edit keys. A dreadful thing is the "reset" key next to the 0 key which I have often mis-typed. Thankfully it does not reset the computer, it clears the current status a bit like Run Stop+Restore combination does on a Commodore 64.


I managed to type in a tiny 10 PRINT... inspired graphics piece, which uses the 4 diagonal symbols just to produce something that's characteristic of this computer and not the ZX81.

Considering a chess program was once written for ZX81 with a length of under 700 bytes, the 2048 bytes of RAM must have been a luxury.


Despite slowness, the ZX81 version of Sinclair BASIC is already quite neat and goes to show a full-screen editing is not always necessary. The BASIC does not take in Sinclair-style single key keywords, which is sort of refreshing.

However, commands cannot be separated with a colon character, in fact the character does not even exist at all in BASIC 2000. This makes IF - THEN constructs sometimes a bit of a chore. Then again the programs never grow truly large so it hardly matters.


Above shows the BASIC 2000 character and command set, a result of a PRINT CHR$(i) loop. TEMPO, SOUND, BEEP, NOBEEP are interesting as the ZX81 had no sound at all. The typing beeps can be turned off with NOBEEP. As in ZX81, FAST and SLOW commands can be used to turn screen update off and on to improve computer speed.

The image below compares the ZX81 character set with the BASIC 2000 set. The changes are minimal, a different font would have given a more distinct feel to the computer. My problem with the game graphics is that the usefulness of the inverted versions have not been thought out very well. Interestingly, not only the colon but the question mark has been abandoned.



Onwards to the year 2000

The hardware improvements makes this a bit nicer than the ZX81 but the software incompatibility and lack of the Sinclair brand aura loses it some points. But it's not the complete piece of trash I expected it to be, typing little programs is quite comfortable soon as you turn off the beeper and get adjusted to the pace. It seems this computer was really meant to be a very introductory kit for, you know, learning BASIC.

Friday, 24 March 2017

Larn, Larn, Larn


I've sung Larn's praises before. Recently, I have been playing Larn more now that a version is available online at larn.org. I have found it to be the most enjoyable of all Rogue-likes, for not being too pedantic about items, character development, eating and stuff. The caverns are rich, diverse yet compact. For such a game-like approach, Larn is still surprisingly "deep" and well-balanced.

The new version balances the game a bit and brings together some command and interface options you'd expect from other rogue-likes. Playing the game from a browser works very smoothly and as a bonus there are DOS and Amiga visuals to choose from. Now that I saw the Amiga graphics I had a bit of a flashback: It is possible my very first games of Larn were played on an Amiga, before moving on to the Atari ST version where I learned to play it properly.

Amigaaah... except, the font is modern.
One of the changes concern balancing the game in relation to the Volcano, which was a source of some "exploitative" approaches towards the game.

The basic idea of the Volcano is very clever: you can climb down there anytime although it is a highly dangerous place. Even with a weak character, you could enter the Volcano Bilbo Baggins-style, and with some cleverness come back up with highly valuable treasures. This is all fine, and it adds spice and variety to the game.

However, a set of "standard items" emerged that nearly guaranteed a safe way to explore the Volcano to the point you could buy the Lance of Death very early in the game. Now, this version of Larn has been tweaked a little so that although this "historical" approach has been preserved, it can be only be done quickly on the easiest levels.

Below are the main keys and some collected some tips for beginners.

Main keys:

hjklubn keys-move player, as in Rogue-likes
h-help screen (more keys etc)
E-Enter dungeon/building
,-Pick up item
i-Display inventory
I-Show known spells&items
c-Cast spell (three-letter combo)
w-wield weapon
W-Wear armor
q-Quaff potion
r-Read book/scroll
o-Open chest/door

Beginner tips:
  • Don't enter the Volcano unless you know what you are doing, or have pretty much destroyed the dungeon first.
  • The very beginning: Sweep clean the first dungeon level before bothering to go down. There are no really dangerous monsters on level 1, just be a bit careful around hobgoblins (H), gnomes (G) and multiple enemies.
  • Remember, you have the magic missile spell ("mle") from the beginning, but don't trust it to work every time. Protect 2 ("pro") is also useful to cast as it's a significant addition to a poor or no armor.
  • Low level characters: Don't open any chests, avoid the altars, don't wash yourselves in a fountain, don't pry off any jewels off thrones and don't open any doors if possible. You'll live longer.
  • Go down only when you are at least level 3. Hopefully you can afford some weapon and armor, too. There you need to start using your "mle" spell actively, because letting some monster types close on you is never very wise.
  • Armor is generally more important than the weapon. A large amount of hit points or a super-weapon doesn't really protect you if you have poor armor.
  • All rings and magic items carried bring a cumulative effect and work automatically without you having to "wear" them. 
  • Energy rings and rings of regeneration are highly desirable, the former brings back spells and the latter returns hit points faster.
  • Scrolls and potions can be a mixed bag for the low-level player. One nice strategy is to collect as many potions and scrolls as you can, and when you have 3400 gold, buy and read the Scroll of Identity and see what you have in your inventory.
  • Never open a door repeatedly without looking what the effect is. When you get a spell good enough to blast the doors apart, always use it.
  • Chests and books give good prices, but can be more useful to open or read. It's a hard call to make. If you can bring a chest or books from the volcano early on, sell them!

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Black Eye HD macro

I got hold of a Black Eye HD macro lens for my battered iPhone 4S. The device is attached with a clip over the camera lens and off you go.

That's not the iPhone, sadly.
I'm interested in getting close-ups without having to set up a "real" camera, so the Black Eye lens is good for practical shots such as work documentation in micro-scale and the like.


And all right, some funny retro-detail shots of old machines. Boy are those old keyboards dirty...


Checking out the ZX Spectrum Recreated keyboard shows some manufacture quality issues...


The lens gives pretty nice results, considering my old 4S camera is not that great and the lighting was a bit poor for these shots.

When the scale is this small, the phone is pretty easy to set against other surfaces to reduce camera shake. Also, the iPhone camera focus adjust works here, although usually it's better to fiddle with the physical distance to get desired results.

The clip attachment is fine with the flat iPhones, showing that a rectangular form often makes sense in a primitive but clever object-ecosystemic way. I'm not too convinced the lens would fit as easily on "all cameraphones", as some have an inconvenient button or curvature near the camera lens.

You need to click on the images and open them in new tabs to get the larger versions, which are already 50% reduced.

Another pic of the Recreated

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Saboteur II - The Avenging Angel remake

The saboteur, doing her sabotage.
After the excellent Saboteur remake for web browsers, Clive Townsend, the author of the Saboteur games, has released a similar treatment of Saboteur II - The Avenging Angel.

I waited for this release with mixed feelings. On 8-bit computers, Saboteur II from 1987 felt less good than the original. Slow, giant-size map with repeating rooms, difficult and random fighting. This type of opinion was also echoed around the 'net, so I never really found myself back with the the game.

Even then, I also felt that on certain points, the sequel was an improvement over the first Saboteur game. You can select your own entrance by dropping from the glider, and you can sneak a bit around the building and not only inside it. The jumping is much more fluid and there are no frustrating jump sections. The ninja can do a satisfying somersault which has more subtle uses than in the first game.


The Saboteur II remake

Enough of that, what's the new game like?

With the Saboteur 1 update, Clive had done an excellent job of enhancing the outcome without altering the game play inside the original game area. Here I was worried that the second game could not work without fundamental changes.

Now that the game is faster and there is more to see, I'm happy to say Saboteur II becomes much clearer and better without any real alterations to the game core. For example, now I finally see that the different missions encourage taking different routes within the complex, whereas Saboteur I was bounded to the one back-and-forth journey with variations.

An example of the kind of attention to detail that has been put in the new graphics.
There's more visual detail, locations and "intel" points and achievements where you learn about the background of the complex. Another nice added detail is the enemy energy bar, which is also shown alongside the player energy. Although it confused me a little at first, this makes the fighting rules more clear and a bit easier.

The missions and some game play aspects have been tweaked a bit. I see the items are no longer placed in "stashes" of multiple items, and the code locations don't have items in them. This is a reasonable streamlining as there was no real benefit from the stash system. A tiny difference is that the missions are now properly locked away, and you can't use a code from a magazine to unlock them :)

As with the previous remake, there are also added game screens and plot elements, which are here revealed in a more piecemeal fashion. After completing a few missions you'll discover there are doors that lead to new rooms... and yes, there's also a new section after all the effort and that's all I'm going to say for now. Let's just say I like the way the new narrative unfolds. Just take heed of all the intel and achievement notes and you'll get an idea what you might be missing. Also, the background in the loading screen is a map, too.

The Amstrad CPC style shows Nina as a redhead!
But it is a bit difficult at the very beginning! I died a dozen times in the first few screens when I started out, but after this initial frustration I took a deep breath and looked at what was wrong with my play style.


Some playing tips

For absolute beginners I'd recommend avoiding the androids, running away from them, or finding routes where you don't have to engage them. This way you can get a better feel of your way in, out and around the complex.

Eventually you have to learn to fight, ninja-style. Nina can do more fighting moves than her brother, but I'd suggest using the flying kick (run + fire) as the primary form of combat, as you can at the same time distance yourself from the androids and keep on fighting. A flying kick followed with a punch can be a devastating combo, but you need to get the rhythm of the fight correct. The crouching kicks are good for the pumas.

Serious moonlight!
The thrown items are as good as one kick, which can make the difference between life and death in some places. Ideally, throwing an item followed with flying kick+punch will destroy an android extremely fast. Got to appreciate the new splintering effect when throwing stuff at the androids!

Situations where two androids are close up can be dangerous. At places, you need to clear yourselves "home space" before climbing up or down a level, because you can't rest while on the ladders between two floors.

As in the original Saboteur 2, there are also some "silly" points where you can rest. These are spots the androids won't enter, despite what logic might say. Take note of such places.


The Avenging Angel

To me this release is just as good or better as the Saboteur! remake, but for slightly different reasons. I appreciate the way the game is able to enhance and finalize Saboteur II: The Avenging Angel in a way that makes me say this is the game it ought to have been, or always was in its heart. The added material, different graphic modes, various music tracks and other improvements here and there make it so much more. I can only hope Saboteur III will be made, combining the best elements from both games.

Get the game(s) from here

My thoughts on the Saboteur! remake here